American public memory has distorted and sanitized the civil rights movement (as it has so much else, to be sure), rendering it soft around the edges and giving it an inexplicably triumphalist sheen, as if everything just plain old got better after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Voices of Civil Rights, a History Channel collection of five programs, plays into this complacency-inducing narrativization; as one episode says in concluding, “the riots eventually ended, and the Voting Rights Act survived.” As such, one need not be a dogmatic radical to take ideological exception to its oversimplified presentation; at the same time, one would have to be detached from human emotion not to be profoundly moved by its content.
Such is the dilemma of constant vigilance: watching the Biography episodes included here on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, it’s impossible not be overcome by a sort of inspirational awe, which makes it difficult to remember that these figures, as heroic as they were, by no means won the battles they fought. At best, they set change in motion, and if one looks at the years since King’s assassination and Marshall’s replacement by Clarence Thomas, the unavoidable conclusion is that the system proved more powerful than their legacies. Which is not to say these biographies are without merit.
The MLK episode, “The Man and the Dream”, provides an effective Cliff’s Notes version of his life, from his comfortable Atlanta upbringing, through Montgomery, Birmingham, the March on Washington, and Selma. It turns superficial on his later years, skirting over his failure in Chicago and the Poor People’s Campaign that was to have started in Memphis, and it incorrectly asserts that, “for the first time, the black vote helped put a Democrat” in the White House in 1960, carelessly disregarding the political realignment of the New Deal and the importance of black voters in Roosevelt’s 1944 re-election and Truman’s 1948 victory. Such nitpicking can hardly mitigate the sheer emotional power of King in action, though, and the program includes enough footage of him speaking in his forceful, articulate and humane style to make it more or less worthwhile; the show’s fundamental mediocrity is virtually obscured by the magnitude of its subject, one of the great figures in American history.
The Marshall episode, “Justice for All”, follows its subject from his birth in Baltimore through his years as the brilliant architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy for desegregation, and into his years on the bench of the Supreme Court. It makes an effective complement to the King piece, contrasting that leader’s civil disobedience with Marshall’s legalistic tactics, as he methodically established lower-court precedents en route to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Again, though, the episode paints with broad strokes, gliding over Marshall’s later frustration in the 1970s and ‘80s as he watched the Court grow increasingly reactionary from within.
The other three programs, also culled from the History Channel, approach the civil rights struggle from different approaches, with mixed results. “Voices of Civil Rights”, which gives the collection its title, straightforwardly documents several oral histories taken by journalists, often to stunning effect. One black man tells of stealing a “for whites/for colored” sign used to demarcate the sections of a segregated bus as a boy. He still has the sign several decades later, a testament that belies the frivolity of his story to show how deeply the sign impacted him. A white woman who moved from California to the South as a girl tells of having to go before a notary and certify her whiteness before she could enroll in school; it was, as she explains, the first time she had thought of herself as a specifically “white” person. In this brief anecdote we can glimpse how racial identities were socially constructed (identity theorists couldn’t ask for a better example of Althusserian interpellation!), and how they shaped self-perception. Most chillingly, testimony from a former Ku Klux Klan member is intercut with a story from a black woman; as the stories develop it emerges that the man was involved in a shootout and burning that left the woman’s father dead, and the tragic human costs of racism are crystallized in the deeply affecting tale.
“Mississippi State Secrets” tells the fascinating story of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, established in 1956 as a murky body that kept civil rights proponents under surveillance and facilitated the transfer of information to violent white supremacist groups. Over 87,000 citizens were monitored despite committing no crimes, and the body was implicated in tampering with jury of Medgar Evers’s murderer, Byron de la Beckwith. Its reign of terror went beyond activists. When a white waitress gave birth to a potentially biracial baby in the 1960s, the Commission intervened to have her other children taken away from her. It was finally terminated in 1977, but only after an ACLU lawsuit were its files opened to the public in 1998. This episode is vivid and informative; though it was made a few years ago, its relevance to contemporary abuses of executive power is obvious and frightening.
Finally, “Crossing the Bridge” zooms in on the 1965 campaign to march from Selma, Alabama into Montgomery to register black citizens to vote. State-sponsored violence against the peaceful marchers reached the eyes of the world, but this episode is overly reliant on reenactments that deter from the vividness of the actual footage.
What, then, is missing from these five programs? Two important things: a recognition of the more radical side of the civil rights movement, and an acknowledgment of its ultimate failure at the hands of an apathetic white power structure.
The importance of the Communist Party, for instance, has been entirely erased from American understandings of the civil rights movement; students may read Native Son, but they rarely get an explanation as to why the book is full of communists. As historian Robin Kelly has shown, though, the Communist Party helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights in Alabama before the reactionary swerve of Cold War politics eliminated it from the public sphere; communists gave legal assistance to the Scottsboro Boys before either the NAACP or ACLU entered the fight; and even NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois ultimately joined the Communist Party. This is not to suggest the CP merits uncritical praise by any means, but its erasure from the civil rights narrative simply serves to perpetuate obsolete Cold War myths and conceal some of the movement’s radical origins (a similar fog shrouds the history of labor unions like the CIO, though they loom less large over the public consciousness).
Likewise, the downplaying of black militance is on display in Voices of Civil Rights. The Black Panthers are absent, as is earlier North Carolina armed radical Robert Wiliams (subject of the PBS documentary Negroes With Guns this month). When Malcolm X is even mentioned, as he is briefly in the MLK episode, it is with ominous drum beats on the soundtrack. The riots of 1965 and later are also seen only very quickly, looking like inchoate displays of random violence, an interpretation persuasively challenged by historian Gerald Horne, whose book Fire This Time argues that the Watts Uprising is better seen as a tactical political rebellion (buildings were not burned at random, and the Watts Towers remained unharmed despite their position in the midst of the fray).
The effect of these obfuscations is to sanitize both the civil rights movement and the white power structure it contested. While white racist violence is on display in the shows, its diegetic function is ultimately one of obscuring the longer-lasting structural racism that has perpetuated the quasi-apartheid state of American society, something that was on abundant display in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina devastation. By marginalizing groups like the Black Panthers, the collection loses an opportunity to clarify public memory of the group, which centers on guns and violence; in fact, most Panther-related violence stemmed from the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO attempts to destroy the group, and most of its efforts focused on community-building projects like feeding hungry schoolchildren. The group had a cogent and insightful analysis of structural racism, but it finds no voice here.
The second and most glaring omission of Voices is the absence of acknowledgment that, while things have certainly improved since the days of George Wallace and Orval Faubus, the civil rights struggle is far, far from over. White resistance grew more sophisticated in the aftermath of the 1960s; instead of KKK members burning crosses (though they still exist, sadly), retrenchment came in the form of coded racist language (Nixon’s “law and order,” Reaganite imagery slandering “welfare mothers”), the corollary dismantling of the welfare state and federal entitlement programs (something Democrat Bill Clinton was all too happy to facilitate, it’s worth noting), racially uneven drug policies that penalize ghetto drugs like crack more severely than yuppie cocaine, and a plethora of other quietly reactionary gestures to help shore up the racial status quo. At the same time, the fiery oratory of civil rights leaders like King gave way to the business-friendly moderate liberalism of Maynard Jackson and Tom Bradley, something these programs also fails to address.
February is Black History Month, and the programs on these two DVDs are valuable introductions to the civil rights struggle, perhaps the most important American movement of the 20th century. But that’s all they are: introductions. Voices of Civil Rights makes the mistake of offering an overly comforting and enclosed vision of the struggle. In a society that imprisons its youth, ignores its poor, wages political warfare on defenseless and exploited undocumented immigrants, and even condemns its own working class for daring to strike, these programs would serve the cause of social justice more effectively by reminding viewers that the civil rights movement is not awaiting its finishing touches, as they suggest; instead, its moribund body is awaiting resuscitation at the hands of a (truly, not just nominally) compassionate public so it can move past the important but limited victories it won and finally create a just society for all races, classes, genders and sexual identities.